About Dr. Marshack’s Blog

Dr. Marshack’s blog postings are short and timely. She shares tips that make your complex relationships work better. She also posts questions because she wants to hear from you and share ideas. Bringing people together to help each other is one of her missions.


Note: Some of the older blogs posts have been imported from a previous website and may have broken links. Try the “search” function in the sidebar to find linked pages that appear to be missing.

Merry Christmas: To My NeuroDivergent Loved Ones

“. . . It’s a cold and very lonely Hallelujah.”
~ Leonard Cohen, lyrics from “Hallelujah” 1984

The loneliness of autism.

The December holidays tend to encourage us to believe in love again. We attend church services, decorate with colorful ornaments, bake sugary goodies, light candles, invite guests to feast on turkey or prime rib or Chinese buffet. We select gifts for our loved ones and wrap them carefully. We hold in our hearts the belief that all of our woes will magically disappear with a bit of holiday glitter.

For those of us in NeuroDivergent relationships, the illusion of a “happily ever after Christmas” is hard to swallow. For us the holidays are even more lonely than the rest of the year. As Leonard Cohen’s lyrics suggest the December holiday season holds a “. . . cold and very lonely Hallelujah.”

It’s a puzzle isn’t it that so many listen to Cohen sing his rendition of “Hallelujah” and yet miss the words. The music is mesmerizing, but the lyrics are just as transcendent as the reverberating chorus, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.”

To me, the lyrics represent more than the typical loss of love between lovers. The poignant lyrics, carried on the primitive melody and sung by the throaty Cohen, is about the loneliness that comes when two different types of love don’t seem to come together (i.e.NeuroDivergence).

Clearly this is no ordinary Christmas song, delivered from the heart of a Jewish man.

Growing up alone with an Autistic mom.

Shortly after my mother Irene died, I had a dream about her. I had hoped that she would visit me after her death — to say a loving goodbye — to let me know she had passed through the veil — that she would always love me.

In the dream I was in the home of my Aunt Patty and Uncle Ray, as it was when I was a child. My cousins and my aunt and uncle were sitting around their large kitchen dining table. We were enjoying lively conversation. It was warm and loving and fun, just as I remembered it on my many visits to their southern California home.

Mom walked through the back door into the kitchen dining area. I was the only one to see her. I was surprised that no one else saw her — but then, even in my dream, I knew she was dead.

I watched her walk through the room. I held my breath. I was speechless. I wanted her to notice me. I wanted her to smile and tell me she loved me. I wanted her to reassure me that she was OK (safe and in God’s hands) and that I was safe and loved too. But nothing. She walked through the room — as she had in life — unaware of me or anyone else.

I awoke with a feeling of aloneness. I feel that way most days, even now.

I didn’t realize that my mother was probably autistic until many decades later. It may have helped to know sooner but I am not sure. I would still have grown up with an autistic mother, who treated me as if I were invisible.

My mother was not loving or comforting. She was an enigma. When she looked in my direction there was no expression on her face — rarely a smile. Her eyes were blank — no energy. I don’t think I ever heard her use my name.

I always knew that my mother was filled with intense anxiety. I walked on egg shells around her to avoid triggering tirades of vulgar language directed at me.

No matter how much I tried to be a “good girl,” I disappointed my mother. But it never made sense to me, even when I was a child. I knew her outrageous anger outbursts were some kind of mental illness — that it couldn’t be me.

That’s the problem though. If a child is to know who she is, she needs a loving mother (and father) to bond with. She needs to feel that she is loved. She needs to know that she belongs to her parents. Children want to belong. It is the belonging that makes a child feel special enough to engage in life as the unique person she is becoming.

I didn’t belong to my mother. We had no emotional connection. Irene engaged in many of the tasks of mothering, except the most important one — to love me unconditionally.

Mom left me as she had lived. She walked right past me, without recognizing me, her daughter, her beloved child. I have suffered ever since with a sense that I am alone and don’t belong to anyone.

What’s in a name?

When my daughter Bianca was a young preteen she approached me with a disturbing problem.

“I don’t think I know what love feels like,” she said.

Immediately I felt alarmed that I had failed her somehow. I looked at her with a worried mother expression and said, “Oh Bianca. You know that I love you, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Bianca said matter-of-factly, without a trace of warmth. “I just don’t know what love feels like.”

Like my mother, Bianca is autistic. I knew it at this time of her life but I hardly comprehended how she really thought — or felt. When Bianca mentioned that she didn’t know how love felt, I leaped in as any NeuroTypical mother would. Firm in my belief that love is an interactive process, and that I could resolve her dilemma by offering my loving concern — it never occurred to me that she was analyzing the concept of love, rather than embracing the emotion.

I really thought that if I offered her my love in that moment, she would know what love feels like — right then. In fact I assumed she wanted to experience my love for her, when she was clearly on a different track. I was skunked once again.

Bianca’s behavior reminded me of my mother. I knew I loved my mother. I even knew somehow that she loved me. But I never felt loved or acknowledged or affirmed. Even more confusing is how I knew I was loved. It was through words alone. My mother never used my name, but when I was very young she called me “Angel Baby.”

You’d think this sweet nickname would make me feel special, but it was the only name Mom used with me. In fact, my younger sister Debra thought my name was “Baby” until she was about seven. I used to tease her about it. In front of other children I would ask her what my name was. When she said “Baby,” we would all laugh at her and make her cry.

Mom just could not affirm who I was. When I made childish mistakes, Mom accused me of all kinds of wrong doing, when it was really a failure on her part as a mother. She never seemed to understand normal child development. This is yet another way Mom left me hanging. Her child was left to navigate normal child development without maternal guidance –and yet it was all wrong somehow for me to be a child. For example,

  • Mom reported that I was a difficult baby and refused breast milk. Others reported that I was a sweet, easy baby.
  • She assumed that I did not like being held when I was a toddler, because I would slip off her lap to run around. Don’t two-year-olds do that?
  • She accused me of being stubborn and always having to have my way. I presume I was just asserting my right to exist.
  • She scrubbed my face raw in an attempt to clean the tiny bit of acne I had as a preteen. How could she not know it was normal for a 12-year-old to have pimples?
  • She did read to me for a brief time because my Grade 2 teacher asked her to. Once the teacher reported that I was in the top reading group, my mother stopped reading to me. Deed accomplished I guess.
  • She never comforted me when I was ill. Instead, she told me to go back to bed and sleep it off. “That’s how you build immunities,” she said. It’s true that I am extremely healthy to this day.
  • Not once did she attend any of my school concerts, even the ones in which I played a solo in the band. Who was I playing for if not for my adoring parents?
  • She always bought my clothing and shoes two sizes too large, because she claimed I would “grow into them.” This goes beyond practicality if you ask me. I never felt pretty and none of my friends admired my new school clothes.

BUT — I had a T-shirt when I was about five that I loved so much I cried when I outgrew it. The shirt was striped with my name — Kathy-Kathy-Kathy. No wonder I cried since that little T shirt was about the only thing that affirmed me.

Bonding with your child is their first experience with love, especially the kind of love that is unconditional. Using your child’s name is important in honoring their uniqueness in the family. Kathy may be a relatively common name in my generation, but there is only one of me and my mother never seemed to know this.

What did that leave me with? Look at this precious child, standing barefoot in the summer sunshine, holding her baby doll and wrapped in a hero’s cape. Yes, and wearing her “Kathy-Kathy-Kathy” T-shirt. How hard would it have been for my mother to sweep me into her arms and tell me she loved me? How hard would it have been to smile at my nurturing instincts and help me put a diaper on my “baby”? But she did none of this. Eventually my doll was left on a shelf in my bedroom – just like my heart.

Heartbreak is proof that you have loved.

Leonard Cohen’s famous song “Hallelujah” is a melancholy rendition of the complications of love in this life. Even King David got caught up in the desires of the flesh and lost track of his duty to God.

And so it is for all of us. We desire to be loved. It starts with our parents and continues with friends and teachers and classmates and boyfriends and girlfriends and bosses and coworkers — and hopefully the love of your life.

We make mistakes along the way but these mistakes make us stronger, more lovable and more loving. Heartbreak is proof that you loved deeply — and can love again.

But what if you grew up with a parent who could not or would not notice you? What if you married a man who did the same? What if you parented a child who said she doesn’t know what love feels like? I suspect if this is you, then you have not really felt loved and lovable. And you have not been able to fully give the love back.

What do you do about this primal need to love and be loved? How do you reclaim your humanness when you started life with a loveless mother? Cohen sings of a “broken Hallelujah.” I cling to his words because that is all I have. No fond memories of a loving childhood. No visits from daughters and sons-in-law and hugs with my grandchildren. But I do have this sense that I am part of something greater.

In fact it is from my loveless childhood that I was first motivated to seek out answers to the dilemmas of NeuroDivergent relationships. I failed time and again to understand that I was not alone in my experience. Apparently I needed to be reminded of my mother’s cold, aloof, cognitve kind of love by marrying an autistic man, and adopting an autistic child. I loved them all dearly, though they never loved me back – emotionally.

Through my books, and online support group, and my recorded video course, I reach and support many people who feel alone as I do. I appreciate them in the ways I needed affirmation from my family members. And they affirm me back. It feels like love to me when I get sweet messages such as this one from Cindy in Canada, regarding an online conference call:

“Thank you again for another hour of connection with women who truly understand the journey. I am encouraged by the sisterhood of similarity. Today’s questions and sharing from other women had me nodding in agreement once again. . . I continue to learn so much from you, Dr. Kathy. Your insights and compassion are so essential. Thank you!”

Two kinds of love.

Jackson, a NeuroDiverse client of mine asked me once how he could be a “better husband.” He knew that his wife was dissatisfied and on the verge of leaving him, but it was beyond his comprehension why — when “I love her so much.”

Further Jackson was deeply troubled by his wife’s anger. She cursed him often because of his lack of empathy. While he could accept that he was more cognitive than emotional – and that he lacked an awareness of her inner state – he was puzzled that she would treat him with such disrespect, when she claimed to be a sensitive, nurturing person. It seemed to him an obvious contradiction for his wife to demand empathy.

I quite agree, but it’s not that simple. Little Kathy wanted empathy too. She wanted to be loved unconditionally (i.e. without having to do anything for it except to belong to her mother). That’s what Jackson’s wife wants too. Only instead of quietly removing herself from life as I did, Jackson’s wife is fighting back. I don’t blame her, even though it won’t work because anger and love are a mismatch.

Another verse from Leonard Cohen’s famous song can help us understand two kinds of love. This could have also been Jackson’s lament:

“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel so I learned to touch.”

Don’t you think it would be a lot easier if we helped people understand that “feelings” are “touch” as much as “emotions”? That they both create love, enhance love, and help us know our worth in the eyes of the beloved?

Even if Cohen is just singing about a man’s loss of a woman’s love, I like to think of the lyrics as the greater message that we can transcend our human missteps in romance by knowing that God loves us. In this Earthly world of human contradictions loneliness doesn’t have to hang you up if you know God is with you.

“And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”

I wish all of you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

 

Membership Support for ASD/NT Relationships

Who Gets It?

What’s it worth to have another person “get it”? What’s it worth to finally be heard after decades of being lonely in a NeuroDivergent relationship? What’s it worth to reclaim your sanity from conversations that go nowhere? What’s it worth to be seen, heard and affirmed?

The answer is that it is worth plenty to join a group of like-minded people to learn that there is relief. By helping each other, in a similar situation, we come to know and share lots.

  • That you are not alone.
  • That others want to help.
  • That there are answers, if only you know where to look.
  • That it feels wonderful to help those new to the NeuroDivergent journey to clarity.
  • That you can heal and reclaim your sanity.

I started this membership group, “Asperger Syndrome,” Partners & Family of Adults with ASD, back in 2009, right after publishing my first book, “Going Over the Edge?” Even after publishing this book, I wasn’t sure anyone would really understand my life — the life of a psychologist who had lived with an ASD mother, married an ASD man, and adopted an ASD child. But I hoped I would find you, and I did.

Over time our little once a month lunch group, grew to national and international proportions. We have members from every continent, and almost every country. It’s stunning when you think about it. Regardless of nationality, native language, age or gender, we have grown from a small group of interested people, to a community who “Gets it.”

Julie Gets It.

I was talking with Julie, our Ambassador and new Membership Manager, the other day. It was a Zoom call of course, since I live In Oregon (USA) and she lives in New Zealand. We were laughing about how we first me, and how we have grown over the years.

“I was on a vacation with my family in Egypt, when I decided I just had to attend one of your teleconferences, Dr. Kathy.” Julie recounted her trepidation on that first call.

I said, “I had no idea that you were on holiday and that you took time to listen in to one of my calls.”

“I had to. I had to know that I was sane. I was worried that you wouldn’t understand what I lived with. I was so worried that I didn’t want to give my name.” Julie admitted.

We both laughed. “Yes,” I said. “Many of our members are so afraid that no one understands or that they will hurt their families, so they keep silent or even disguise who they are at first. Eventually, though they come to love our little community and open up completely.”

Julie has grown from that first timid phone call, to become a regular at events and eventually tapped to be our Ambassador. This is an important role, since the Ambassador helps “newbies” find their footing in our community. Julie knows what it’s like to be new and uncertain if you will be accepted. Of course, with her warm spirit “newbies” don’t feel new for very long.

In fact, because of Julie’s talents she has been promoted to Membership Manager. With Daniela leaving this position at the end of the year, it seemed a natural fit for Julie to expand her role as Ambassador to include Membership Management. After all who better to answer your questions about our community than Julie, someone who “Get’s it,” — gets what you live with day and day out.

Where’s my rocket ship taking me?

A few years ago, I had a premonition that appears to be coming true. I dreamt that I was remodeling a long-forgotten rocket ship in my basement. It was a rocket ship that was specifically meant for me, but until I retrofitted my ship, it wasn’t ever going to lift off. I think it is ready now, with the addition of Ambassador Julie, and my first ever online recorded course, “Asperger Syndrome”& Relationships.

Even as I write this blog, I am drafting yet another course, Conversational “Aspergian.” This second course will take an even deeper dive into what I know about NeuroDivergent relationships. It is once again designed for the NeuroTypical and the NeuroDiverse, so that we use the 7-Step Interface Protocol to resolve the problems when ASD and NT worlds collide.

These courses are an opportunity to augment what I offer in my books. The courses are a place to learn skills for sure — but also a way to share with others in the community. I’ll soon set up a convenient online meeting room for those taking the courses. This is where the real healing takes place, isn’t it? In conversation with others, we come to know who we are and where our rocket ship is taking us next.

I am looking forward to meeting more of you. Thank you for being part of an amazing, healing and loving journey.

The Big Mistake (And The Five Steps to Correct it)

Our one big mistake.

Dr. Kathy Marshack
Dr. Kathy Marshack

There is one big mistake that all of us make, whether NeuroTypical or NeuroDiverse. This is the assumption that we are operating in reality and that we know the truth, when in fact, we are operating in our “map of reality,” or our perception of reality. Therefore, the truth as we know it, is a fabrication of our conscious processes.

Wow! That’s a serious philosophical way to start this blog, but I wanted to put it out there right up front. Once you get it that your mind can play tricks on you, you should be better able to understand the differences that abound in a NeuroDivergent relationship.

If you want your relationship to go more smoothly, to be more loving, and to be understanding and understood, you must follow these five steps.

  1. Slow down in order to access your conscious mind, not just your intuition or instinct.
  2. Be conscious and listen to all of the cues you are receiving from the other person; and those cues you are sending.
  3. Be consistent, so that you are saying what you mean and use the words that convey this meaning. Check your intuition for consistency, but don’t rely on it alone.
  4. Correct your errors of perception. This is not so easy to do, but if you get resistance (or disagreement from the other person) you are not being consistent. Change your approach.
  5. Stay in the flow. You know you are in the flow when your consciousness and that of the other person are in synch. If you aren’t in the flow, go back and (1) slow down, (2) be conscious, (3) be consistent, (4) and correct your errors of perception.

 

The basic nature of consciousness.

On October 3, 2022, scientists published a new theory that consciousness is a function of episodic memory — that consciousness arises from our memories. Stay with me while I walk you through the basics of this theory. More importantly, this theory will help you understand why your NeuroDivergent relationship hits the skids so often.

Simply, it is the fact that the NeuroTypical and the NeuroDiverse process and store episodic memories differently. If, as the researchers suggest, consciousness develops (i.e., grows and matures) as a function of memory (episodic memory or the things that happen to us and the people we meet along the way), then each NT and Autist will acquire consciousness very differently from the other — and build a map of reality that is unlike their partner.

Further complicating the communicating and relating parts of the relationship is that we continue to confound each other with new memories based upon the old constructs in our mind — and wander even further away from each other.

This process of developing consciousness is unique for all of us, of course. No two “maps of reality” will be the same, due to a variety of human temperament, personality, culture, etc. However, for those in NeuroDivergent relationships, the maps of the partners are profoundly different — and explain the divergence when trying to connect.

 

First comes memory – then consciousness.

There are different types of memory but let’s stick to a short discussion of “Declarative Memory,” which includes semantic and episodic memory. Declarative memory can be consciously recalled (as opposed to unconscious memories which need a little prodding to surface), such as facts and knowledge. Autobiographical memory is one type of declarative memory. While semantic memory involves the recollection of facts, episodic memory involves the recollection of previous experiences in life. (Read this again.)

This is key to our discussion. Studies of those with ASD show impairments to their episodic memory but preservation of their semantic memory. If consciousness is formed through retrieval of our memories, and the NeuroDiverse rely heavily on words and facts (semantics), then conscious awareness of who they are — and who are others — and their sense of contributing to the community in which they live — is about the parts of life, or the details.

On the other hand, if NeuroTypicals rely heavily on episodic memories of experiencing life, then conscious awareness of who they are — and who are others — and their sense of contributing to the community in which they live — is about how the parts interact, or the whole of life.

Think about how critical this is to communicating, to relating, to knowing yourself in relation to another. If our NeuroDiverse loved ones store their memories semantically and develop conscious awareness of the truth of who they are, and we are, through these semantic memories — well that leaves those NeuroTypicals without a way to use experiential/episodic learning as a method of connecting. This often leaves the NT feeling misunderstood, unheard and even emotionally invisible.

 

The loneliness of A-Synch communication.

A NeuroDiverse client of mine complained that my description of him as transactional was pejorative. He offered that his communication with his wife may be “A-synchronous” rather than merely transactional. He knows that he loves her and that he wants to improve the relationship, so he reasons that he can’t be transactional. However, he is aware that he is not always conscious of her meaning when she talks. Often, he needs time to process her meaning (which is characteristic of the semantic processor).

This is a perfect example of semantic memory versus episodic (whole experience) memory, and the underpinning of their marital problems. Semantic memory predisposes the NeuroDiverse spouse to use facts and very specific words to retrieve memories and meaning (i.e., his insistence that I use the term A-synchronous rather than Transactional). The episodic memory predisposes the NeuroTypical to use intuition and feelings to retrieve memories and meaning.

VIDEO CONFERENCE: Why do so many people believe my “Aspie” and not me? Those of us living in NeuroDivergent relationships know how much slower our ASD loved ones are at processing their own feelings, and ours. We watch as they pause, close their eyes, or inexplicably walk away from a conversation. Occasionally NTs have to endure an outburst of anger, as the NeuroDiverse person feels confused, overwhelmed, and even threatened by the NTs request for “deeper” emotional meaning. On the other hand, if given enough time to process (even writing down their thoughts), the NeuroDiverse person can reach some of those episodic memories that have been stored as life-experiences-with-others.

The NeuroDiverse individual develops a transactional consciousness as a result of relying on semantic memory. The NeuroTypical develops an interactional consciousness as a result of relying on whole life experiences memory (episodic memory). Let me give an example.

Tasha, a NeuroTypical wife says, “Hey Hon. Would you mind picking up the living room before our guests arrive?” The wife gives her spouse a prompt to affirm her (i.e., “Would you mind. . .”).

“OK,” says Gustaf, the NeuroDiverse husband, but he wanders off to his study instead. He does not recognize his wife’s emotions, nor does he figure in the timing of taking care of her request. In other words, he does not retrieve episodic memories of similar interactions to help him recognize what his next move should be.

“Hey Honey,” she prompts. “I really do need you to pick up the living room. We don’t have much time.” She is relying on his recognition of her anxious concern about getting ready for guests. She appeals to his empathy for her by saying “I really need you. . .” Empathy is a function of episodic memories with others, something lacking in her NeuroDiverse husband.

“I said I would do it. Don’t worry.” He closes the door to his study. Gustaf truly means that he will “do it,” relying on semantics to seal the deal. However, he has not acknowledged Tasha’s emotional need to be understood. Nor has he included a review of past experiences to help guide him in future behavior. 

Exasperated, the NT wife starts cleaning up the living room. He walks out of his study as the first guest arrives. As she fluffs the last pillow on the couch he says, “Why did you clean up? I told you I would take care of it.”

As the NeuroDiverse husband smiles a gracious greeting to their first guest, the NT wife is ready to explode, but she has to calm herself for her guests. No one knows that she has had this frustrating exchange with her spouse.

In this simple exchange between transactional spouse (semantic memory) and interactional spouse (episodic memory) there are so many errors that each are making. The Big Mistake for the NeuroTypical is that she believes her spouse will retrieve memories that help him consider the time, timing, his wife’s emotional needs, the mess in the living room, a plan for taking care of the living room, etc.

The Big Mistake for the NeuroDiverse spouse is to respond only to the words his wife is speaking and promising to do something he has no plan for. He is waiting for more data, which doesn’t come until the guests arrive and he witnesses his wife cleaning the living room.

This simple, yet big mistake carries huge consequences. Tasha feels ignored when she made a simple request. Because she wants things to go well for the evening, she takes over for Gustaf rather than nag him to finish the task. Gustaf may feel frustrated too if his wife is angry with him for not doing his part to ready the home for guests. After all, he intended to clean up the living room, but she decided to do it for him. His reasoning is that it’s not his fault that she jumped the gun.

When the NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse worlds collide daily in these not-so-ordinary moments, the emotional toll is heavy. In addition, over the years the consciousness that grows from the semantic v. episodic storing of memories, leads to a NeuroDivergent life with no connection in sight for a couple. How can the NT feel loved when none of her requests are honored? How can the NeuroDiverse feel loved when he is treated like a child who never quite gets it right?

 

Conversational Aspergian.

I’ll be offering a course soon on “Conversational Aspergian,” in which I outline theories and techniques that help us to better understand the mindset of the NeuroDiverse v. the NeuroTypical, such as this theory of consciousness. You can register to be the first to know about it on this page.

As you can imagine, there is a great deal more to this theory than the tidbits I have presented in this blog. However, I hope you get the idea that it takes a lot of effort to cross the boundaries of NeuroDivergent communication to get some understanding, connection, and love.

With this new research published just this month, we can now add to our language of NeuroDivergence the theory that consciousness evolved following the development of memories (in particular episodic memories). As those memories were encoded semantically or whole life experientially  individuals developed transactional consciousness or interactional consciousness. The deficit in episodic memory that is seen with the NeuroDiverse (and primarily transactional person) doesn’t mean they lack consciousness of others, nor of their responsibilities in their community — but it does mean it takes them longer to access that level of consciousness.

If these two systems are to be understood and appreciated, both parties to a NeuroDivergent relationship need to accept and affirm the conscious reality of the other person. Correct your Big Mistake with the Five Steps and realize that even if it is disorienting to do so — and it takes a bit longer to finish the conversation — it is better to step into the territory of the other person for a better understanding of how their consciousness works.

Please let me know if you are interested in my new course, “Conversational Aspergian.” Click here to be announced when it’s ready. Or contact Daniela with your interest/questions, at drkathysocialmedia@gmail.com

The Woman With No Past

“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier.”

~ Eleanor Roosevelt

 

The last day of my former life.

It was about 11:00 pm when I was awakened by knocking on the front door. I leaned over from my bedside, peeked out my window, and saw two police officers standing on the front porch, with flashlights scanning my windows. I sat up in bed, trying to decide what to do. While my better judgement was to stay and feign sleep, my mother’s instinct to protect my daughter got the best of me. So, I got out of bed, and barefoot, I walked to the door.

As I opened the door, one of the cops held a flashlight to my face, blinding me. Standard police protocol when interrogating a suspect. I knew then that this was not a friendly call.

The night was going from bad to worse. My daughter Phoebe assaulted me earlier that evening. She had come to my house to ask for money from her college fund, even though she was not attending classes and intended to use the money to pay living expenses for herself, her young son and her unemployed boyfriend.

I tried to reason with her about misusing her college fund, but this only infuriatedPhoebe more. I knew that she was caught in a trap of loving a man who caused her all kinds of trouble. He had a dishonorable discharge from the Army. He had a temper that was frightening, especially when he slapped his newborn child. He had threatened to kill Phoebe more than once (one time threatening to shove her down the stairs when she was pregnant).

Now her mother was trying to help her be strong, stand up for herself, and do the right thing — even if it meant doing so with an angry man. Phoebe is not that strong though. Instead, she turned on me. She shoved me backwards into a plate glass door. I stumbled and fell to the floor, knocking over an end table. Blood was dripping from my hand where I gashed it on the metal edge of the table. I grappled for balance as Phoebe continued to scream and lunge at me.

All the while her 8-month-old son was crying. He was sitting in his baby carrier at the top of the stairs. I was terrified that Phoebe in her rage would knock him down the stairs. But she wouldn’t or couldn’t stop. I had been victimized more than once by Phoebe’s anger. Her rage was of that lightening type, that flares out of control in an instant and doesn’t stop until the whole forest has burned down.

When Phoebe finally stopped the attack, my home office in shambles, blood dripping from my hand, she grabbed her baby and gave me a hateful look. She said, “You’ll never see Jameson again!” A threat she has kept for nine years.

Even with the officer blinding me with his flashlight, I tried to explain what had happened that night, but it was clear that Phoebe had reported the incident to the police, with the lie that I had attacked her. When they tired of listening to me, one of them spun me around, grabbed my wrists to handcuff me — barefoot and wearing nothing but pajamas.

I pleaded with them. “Please don’t do this. I’m all my daughter has.”

The officer was menacing. “Are you resisting arrest?”

Of course, there was no point in increasing the charges they would file against me, so I said no more and let them lead me across the front lawn to the waiting cop car.

 

“I’m all my daughter has.”

That was a profound statement. I didn’t fully grasp the import of what I said until many years later, actually. It was unbelievable to me that Phoebe would make this choice — the choice to align herself with the alienating parent (my former spouse Howard) and with the many others who thoughtlessly maligned me in order to keep Phoebe from her mother.

Phoebe and I had been through so much together. She had no idea really how valiantly I had fought for us. I protected her from much of the court battles with her father, the neighbors, the city attorney. She never really knew why we were being harassed by the neighbors (over millions to be made in real estate development). She never understood that her father’s autism/narcissism explained his lack of kindness and common sense when it came to our divorce. She saw how hard I worked to help her autistic sister Bianca, but never fully appreciated why I didn’t have as much time for her.

When Phoebe started to seriously decompensate in high school, my mother’s heart just got stronger. I rescued her from drunken binges and rushed her to the ER. I sent her to therapy. I put her in an alternative high school for students who were struggling in their studies. I sent her off to a summer camp designed to help troubled teens.

Then there were her multiple health problems — mild traumatic brain injuries from soccer, torn-up ankles, tonsillectomy, kidney stones. I am certain her health problems were due to the stress of our lives with an abusive father (who had in turn encouraged others to harass me).

While Phoebe got physically ill and drank too much, I stayed as strong as I could since both of my daughters needed me (even though Bianca had already turned against me). I didn’t get sick, like Phoebe, per se, but I was constantly off balance, literally. I fell down stairs more than once, breaking my wrist, my ankle, my foot and causing numerous sprains.

As the months went by without hearing from Phoebe, I kept hoping she would change her mind. At first, I was not allowed to talk with her, which was part of the legal requirement until the charges were cleared. I had Christmas presents for her and her son but I was not allowed to deliver them in case it was interpreted as a bribe.

I cried when I read her deposition, in which she lied about the attack. They were foolish lies that made no sense, but it showed me that she was frightened. She knew that she was harming her mother but I guess she thought it easier to reject me rather than to take on an abusive boyfriend and an abusive father.

There was literally no one in her life to help her do the right thing. With me out of the picture, she comforted herself for the loss of her mother, with the lie that I was the cause of her problems. Still, I held out hope that she would know I loved her enough to forgive her bad choices.

 

“This was bound to happen.”

One day toward the end of the legal part of this family tragedy, my attorney’s paralegal, Bill said to me, “This was bound to happen, Kathy.”

I felt a wave of shock wash over me. I looked at him, wide eyed, as if to say, “What do you mean,” although I said nothing.

Bill caught my look and softened a bit. “Kathy, you have done everything you can for Phoebe — in fact both of your daughters — but this estrangement was bound to happen. Phoebe has been heading in this direction for a long time.

How did he know? Bill expressed my worst fear — that I would never see my daughters or my grandson again.

How did he know? I never asked him, but I presume he had handled many such cases as a paralegal. He had probably seen many a tearful parent wondering how to bring their family back from the abyss.

Shortly after this conversation with Bill, the charges against me were dismissed when the city prosecutor realized I was defending myself from Phoebe’s attack. She wasn’t arrested thank goodness but I am sure that was her fear — and why she turned on me. Instead, the charges were unceremoniously dismissed and I was sent home to grieve the loss of my daughter.

It has been nine years since I last saw Phoebe and Jameson. Phoebe has blocked me from all social media, phone calls, texts, emails, even snail mail. I really don’t even know how to reach her since I have so little information about her life over the last near decade.

It is important that you understand why a mother like myself has taken such a long time to accept what Bill told me all of those years ago. It is not just that I was the last honest, loving, and courageous person left in her life — and that without me she would tumble into that horrible abyss. Phoebe was also all I had left of a life I thought was true.

 

We come to know ourselves in relation to others.

According to Dialectical Psychology, a theory developed by Klaus Riegel, we human beings come to know who we are in relation to those we live with, go to school with, work with and so forth. In other words, your identity is shaped by how others in your community see you and interact with you.

Think about it. When you learned to ride a bike, were you all by yourself or was there an adoring parent holding the bicycle seat to keep you steady? Or if you did figure out how to ride all by yourself, did you want to show your parents what you had accomplished? I doubt you kept secret your new found bicycle skill.

Not all of our life lessons are positive though. We are shaped by fear and suffering too. As we saw with Phoebe’s decision to turn on her mother, fear got the best of her. She chose an identity that rejected her mother rather than face something else in herself — that is that she has an anger management problem.

As for me it took many years of anguish and recrimination before I could accept that I am nothing like Phoebe’s perceptions of me — and that I had no power to change her. I gave Phoebe many chances to choose better, but I was up against great odds in parenting with a partner who is a narcissist. Still, this was Phoebe’s choice to make — and she may still do the right thing — I can always hope.

In the meantime, I began to look at the woman I really am, separate and distinct from the disrespectful way I have been treated by some family members. There are lots of people who see me as strong, smart, kind, supportive, engaging, talented, etc. In fact, there are more of those people, than those malevolent family members who wanted to harm me. So why would I let these hostile folks define me?

The answer is simply that I let them define me (wrongly) because I wanted my daughters to have a happy loving home. I wanted to enjoy family life as a loving presence for them. I wanted to share this love with my spouse too. Instead, I was constantly doing battle to correct the mistakes I felt my family made about me.

It is not easy to let go of people who define you in ways that are against your self-interest. As you can imagine it is traumatic to let go of your children and a spouse who don’t get you — may never get you — and who are out to harm you if you dare try to be who you really are.

 

The woman with no past.

I titled this blog, “The Woman With No Past” because it occurred to me that I can’t keep defining myself according to the way my loved ones have determined is true about me. And since I have lived my entire life with family with Empathy Dysfunction (EmD), it is likely that I have rarely had a true reflection of myself from any one of these “loved ones.”

Empathy is an important asset to have. It is the ability to hold dear the feelings and thoughts of the other person — while at the same time holding constant your own feelings and thoughts — and communicating respectfully with the other person in such a way that they feel loved and appreciated.

The goal of empathy is to generate a feeling that we are connected, cared for, affirmed. It’s not about winning or losing but about creating an outcome between you that works for each of you. Empathic interactions make it possible for us to know who we are in relation to others who are kind and who like us.

Without receiving Empathy consistently from others in your family, a child or an adult will fall into a state of despair, not only wondering who they are in relation to these family members with EmD, but also making terrible mistakes as they try to adapt to the false reflection coming from their EmD loved ones.

That’s my story of a life with an autistic mother, autistic and narcissistic husband and autistic daughter. I will probably forever grieve the loss of my daughter Phoebe (and her sister Bianca) but what their painful rejection has taught me, is that I was wrong to define myself according to many people over the years who have Empathy Dysfunction.

Those memories of my life with my daughters may not be even close to the truth. I do remember giggling with my daughters or taking them to the beach to build sand castles. I remember helping them with their homework or putting their folded laundry in their drawers. I remember getting pizza at Nature’s (now New Seasons) on a Friday night. I remember being proud to attend their piano recitals and soccer games. I remember creating college funds for both girls because I thought it was the right thing to do, even though their father complained. I remember scheduling medical and dental appointments and worrying about their food sensitivities.

I remember many things about my life with my daughters (my former spouse and my parents too), but are these memories all of my own making? If these family members didn’t really appreciate all of these things about me, and could easily dispense with me, then I suppose it is true that I have no past. To have a past means you shared it with someone — that you shared the love.

So, then the question becomes who am I if it does not come from a past shared with loved ones? I still love my daughters. I can feel that. It’s deep and abiding. But it is love separate from who I am, the mother they may never know — but who I am coming to know more and more each day in relation to other loving, empathic people.

Healing from Unspeakable Tragedies of the Past

“If you have been brutally broken
But still have the courage
to be gentle to other living beings,
then you’re a badass
with a heart of an angel.”
~ Keanu Reeves

Brutally broken?

Most of us cannot say we have been “brutally broken.” Life is complicated and often treacherous. Every so often we get a reprieve from the heartache and suffering. Then life can be peaceful, joyful, and downright glorious.

I have similar ups and downs, just like all of you. We find a way to resurrect our lives after a major set-back. We grieve the loss of an elderly loved one. We suck it up when there is a reversal of fortune. We hunker down and work harder toward our personal goals when they have been sidelined by the ordinary obligations of life. In spite of these set-backs, we usually let go of the grieving after a while.

However, sometimes the loss is too great and we are brutally broken. I doubt the survivors of the Uvalde massacre (what else can I call it?) will ever have another moment of joy that is not tinged with intense unremitting grief. I wonder if they can let themselves love again, when their child/ sibling/ grandchild/ friend had their life cut short so young and so violently?

 As a psychologist, I am asked about how to help the children who are going through the shock of their lives right now. Not just the children in Uvalde, or Texas, but around the country. Of course, many children have nightmares or are fearful of returning to their classrooms.

I am also asked what can be done for the parents who are grieving, or who are terrified that the same could happen to their children, in their town, in their school.

Of course, it is important to reach out to those who are personally going through this heartbreaking and horrible tragedy, but my focus in this brief article is on those who are retraumatized by Uvalde. They suffer silently because their pain is not of the moment, but of unspeakable tragedies past.

How do we lay to rest unspeakable tragedies?

First of all, we cannot move on from unspeakable tragedies if we don’t speak about them. Not everyone will listen to you, but I will. I am one of you who has lost my precious children to parental alienation, but whatever your trauma, your heart is worth knowing.

I had no idea that my ex-husband Howard would go so far as to brainwash our children against me and destroy the hearts of his family — and thus their sense of safety. In fact, I didn’t believe it for years, as I denied the horrible things he did.

I carried on through an onslaught of 12 years of ruthless attacks on me and my daughters. I was sued, harassed, stalked, assaulted, arrested, and defamed to my licensing Board. All told I hired 16 attorneys during those twelve years, to handle over 20 legal matters, and costing me $550,000. I survived by using my wits and borrowing on my house and credit cards.

One of my attorneys told me that a jury wouldn’t believe I had suffered since I carried on very well in public. Since I wasn’t acting traumatized, in the hospital, homeless, or dead, he reckoned that I would just have to move on – without my children.

Apparently crying myself to sleep night after night — all alone — wasn’t sufficient evidence of suffering. Neither was burying myself in my work as a clinical psychologist or writing books on NeuroDivergence. How could a jury understand that keeping myself busy, kept the terror at bay?

Let the terror break through.

It is too soon for the families and friends in Uvalde to begin the healing process. There remain years of terrifying thoughts to suppress. If you can be there for them, please protect them as they grieve. Make them a sandwich. Turn on some pleasant music. Mow the lawn for them. But do not make them talk yet about the unspeakable horror that invades their every waking moment. Hold them when they cry and say nothing except that you love them.

For me, the terror broke through when my dear dog companion Simon died. I also lost his little cat buddy Neo. They were old and frail and needed me to help them pass, so I did. Only then did I allow my own unspeakable tragedy to surface. This was 19 years after the start of Howard’s psychological warfare. It took a long time to be able to face that I would never again see my daughters — or meet my grandchildren — 19 years.

I suppose this is what Reeves means by “the courage to be gentle with other living beings.” My big Black Lab, Simon was 14 and little Neo, was 16. I loved them with all of my heart. They were my family during those harsh times. My children got swept away by emotional abuse, but Simon and Neo were steady and protective companions. I loved them beyond measure (as any pet parent knows). When I let them go, it was amazingly peaceful.  I held them gently, stroking their soft fur, as they fell silent in my arms — so great was their trust in me.

Become a Radiant Empathy Angel.

When you are finally ready to face the terror, it will wash over you with unforgiveable fierceness. You may be unable to sleep or eat or remember how to get your car pointed home. But I guarantee that it will pass quickly if you are ready to step into your courage and embrace the heart of a Radiant Empathy Angel. Reeves calls these folks “badass” but I prefer the term “warrior.”

A Radiant Empathy Angel, or Gentle Warrior is someone who has weathered the most unspeakable tragedy, and yet hasn’t lost their humanity. They not only know they have a job to do to make the world a better place, but they are no longer keeping busy to suppress the terror. To become a Radiant Empathy Angel is the only door that is open to you if you are to heal.

If you stay stuck in your grief, you will be retraumatized time and time again by the brutal world we live in. If you keep a lid on your terror, you won’t allow the rekindling of love in your life (and the world desperately needs more love). The only way out of this dilemma is to become a Radiant Empathy Angel — which requires the heart of a warrior.

I still grieve. I still give up on myself from time to time. I still suppress the terror occasionally. But I am getting better at flying high as a Radiant Empathy Angel. When I let the love flow and trust that God is right there — you know what I mean, right there? Then I get a sweet text that reminds me it pays to be a Warrior in service to others.

Here’s one of those God messages I got from a client right after his therapy session with his wife:

“I’m not sure I can put into words what you did for us just then. So, whatever you take from this you can multiply it be a factor of a lot….YOU.WORK.MIRACLES. You’re awesome. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. . . . You rock! I’m so very grateful to have found you. Thank you Kathy.”

If you have been “brutally broken” by one of the cruel actions of others, whether that be a war, a rape, parental alienation, or a mass shooting — I hope you realize that you can heal. Furthermore, when you rise out of the ashes of your despair, aim to operate as a Radiant Empathy Angel. With this spirit of a Warrior (or Badass as Reeves tells it), you will do far more than survive an unspeakable tragedy — you will work miracles too.

How Do We Find Each Other?

“Look me in the eye.”

I watched my daughter as she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know?” I had just asked her where she got the new Barbie clothes I found in her room.

“Phoebe,” I said sternly. “Look me in the eye. Where did you get these new things?” Again, she evaded my look, but said nothing. She looked uncomfortable, knowing full well she was trapped.

“Mrs. Burton told me that you took these things from Lauren when you were playing Barbies next door. Is that true?” I was hoping she would come clean before I had to press again.

Phoebe raised her voice a bit and did indeed look me in the eye. “Lauren said I could have them!” she said defiantly.

“Phoebe,” I said. We both know that’s not true, or why would Lauren’s mother come to me with the problem. “Nope, you took them without permission. And you will give them back. In fact, we are going over there right now and I want you to apologize.”

Of course, Phoebe was humiliated and looked away in shame.

Most parents have used this expression a time or two – “Look me in the eye.” It’s an expression meaning that we want to determine if the other person is being truthful. It’s assumed that if the person can look you in the eye with confidence, they must be telling the truth. If there is a hint of shame or embarrassment, then we assume the other person is lying.

However, only those on the Autism Spectrum believe that an ongoing conversation requires looking the other person in the eye. They mix this up all of the time when they accuse NeuroTypicals of wanting them to make eye contact. In fact, when we NTs talk about making eye contact, we don’t mean that either. After all, NTs don’t make eye contact all of the time. We frequently look away or down or up or side to side, as part of the nonverbal signals we send and receive in a conversation.

So, what do we mean? It’s just one of those expressions that has a deeper meaning. To make appropriate eye contact is a request to connect, interactionally. To validate and affirm the other person is the first step in an empathic conversation. Nodding, smiling, looking at the other, leaning forward, shaking hands — these are all nonverbal gestures that NTs use to connect first with the other person.

On occasion, we might assert our authority with a child and tell them to “Look me in the eye!” But mostly various types of eye contact are viewed as polite ways to acknowledge the value of the other person.

It gets confounding for NeuroTypicals when NeuroDiverse individuals avoid eye contact, or stare for too long, or make exaggerated eye rolls at the wrong moment. It’s hard to trust people who do not make reasonable eye contact — or we tend to think the person is immature — at least that is how NeuroTypicals feel.

“See what I mean?”

NeuroTypicals use a variety of expressions that are intended to foster emotional connection. We use sensory words to reach the other person through their feelings first.

  • See what I mean?
  • Does that sound right to you?
  • Let’s stay in touch.
  • That resonates with me.
  • Ah, yes, that rings a bell.

We also express distress similarly. And this is where it shows up as a disconnect in NeuroDivergent relationships.

  • Why don’t you ever listen to me?
  • He’s so cold.
  • Don’t give me that look!
  • Why can’t you see me?
  • Do I have to scream to be heard?

These expressions “fall on deaf ears” when NeuroTypicals use them with their
NeuroDiverse loved ones. This is because Autists are transactional, not interactional. They wait patiently for NTs to finish the small talk of emotional connection. They listen to the words, not the interpersonal connecting language. Thus, they miss the person who is speaking, in favor of the content of the wording.

“You just don’t get me!”

With Empathy Dysfunction (EmD) our NeuroDiverse loved ones fail to grasp the NeuroTypical need to be affirmed interpersonally first. Before moving on to a topic of conversation, we NTs seek to connect, emotionally, empathically. Without this connection, it can feel as if we aren’t heard or seen, or that we aren’t seeing or hearing the other person.

“I feel invisible, Dr. Marshack.” Ashleigh was in tears as she tried to describe the emotional disconnect in her NeuroDivergent marriage.

I nodded a look of understanding, and Ashleigh continued.

“I mean I know that Roald loves me, but he is so cold. He doesn’t listen to me. He doesn’t see me. He doesn’t get me.”

“Yes, Ash,” I said. “It’s like he is hearing your words, but not you — the woman who is speaking — the woman he loves.”

“Exactly, Dr. Marshack. Why can’t he understand where I am coming from?” Ashleigh believes it should be easy.

Can you recognize Ashleigh’s confusion? Do you understand her pain? Does it make sense that she feels so distraught just because Roald doesn’t use empathy to communicate? Can you imagine Road’s confusion too, since as a NeuroDiverse man he diligently listens to her every word?

“How do we find each other?”

It’s such a tragedy that a NeuroDivergent couple falls out of love because they can’t get past this barrier to connecting. Transactional people listen to the words. Interactional people listen to the person. That’s a big difference and it means all the world to “finding each other.”

That’s the question, isn’t it? “How do we find each other?” Presumably, there was love once and it can be reignited in these NeuroDivergent relationships. But it won’t be because those transactional NeuroDiverse folks suddenly shift to interactional NeuroTypical language. That’s because the NT language is more than words.

Empathy is more than words and requires a type of energy that is like music. Like a symphony orchestra playing a stirring rendition of “The Imperial March” by John Williams. Music has the capacity to transcend the words and create meaning that connects heart and mind — within and among us.

So how do we find each other in a NeuroDivergent relationship? Perhaps it is to start with the knowledge that we don’t speak the same language. If we can stay detached or neutral, and stretch to understand where Autists are coming from — maybe the Autist will get it that their NT loved ones are holding space for them. The NeuroDiverse may not see us, or hear us, or touch us with unspoken “words,” but maybe a kind of trust can grow as we search for a way to bring these divergent worlds together.

If you have a loved one on the Spectrum, please check our private MeetUp group. We have members from around the world meeting online in intimate video conferences guided by Dr. Kathy Marshack.
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